How do you decide what to spend on a computer?

Decide to buy a computer these days and immediately you're confronted with a complex decision process wherein you pit features against price. The choice is intensely personal and a total reflection of your tastes, priorities, and pocketbook. I know how I've gone about it in the past, but I was curious to see how other people approach the problem.

It wasn't hard to get people to talk. (People are passionate about their computers!) But as they did, I identified three basic methods to decide on price:

  1. The features route
  2. The cheap route
  3. The set-price route

Now that I think about it, this may be true for a lot of purchases!

Man compares prices on new computers in store

The Features Route

Most everyone I talked to went right to the features. Many of them use their computer for work, but a lot of them use it for entertainment or gaming. What the computer does for them is how they establish its value.

“It's a MacBook Air with a Thunderbolt display!” or “It has a terabyte of memory and I can keep all my movies on it!”

Never mind the fact that it's $4,000.

Price can be irrelevant to people who are driven by features. But if you need to stick to a budget, concentrating on features can be a bit problematic. (If you're financially independent, of course, that might not be an issue for you.)

The Cheap Route

Last year, my hand-me-down computer was on its last legs. I'd kept it well past its prime — a good seven years — but I couldn't deal with it heating up and turning off without warning. So I went into cheap-computer-buying mode.

The cheap-o version cost me a whopping $249 at Fry's. It has 256 gigabytes of storage memory, and about four gigabytes of RAM. I mostly use it for correspondence and surfing the Internet, and it's more than enough computer for me. I didn't spend a lot of money or a lot of time — and even better, it fit right into my plan to beef up my savings account. (Win-win!)

The Set-Price Route

There's another technique, kind of a hybrid, which works well for someone that really needs the features but still has to stay within budget. The idea is to set an amount that works for your budget and then find the computer with the most features you want for that set price.

It may take some time to decide what's most important and then to shop here, there, and everywhere to find the exact model that fits your price point. But if you've got the time, you should end up reasonably satisfied with the result.

The Flipside

Each method has its benefits and pitfalls, so you should be aware of what you're doing and why when you make purchases like these. For example, when you spend a lot on a computer, you expect a lot from it and you're likely to want to keep it for a long period of time. But that might work against you with the pace of innovation today.

On the other hand, if you go the cheap route, you may be disappointed because it doesn't live up to your expectations at all. But at least it would be easier to replace the computer when something better comes along. The best part of that is you can upgrade your technology more frequently, especially as prices come down.

With the set-price method, you maximize the features and value while you cap the cost — kind of like having the best of both worlds.

Bringing Method to Black Friday Madness

Black Friday's coming, and I expect there will be the usual spate of unbelievable electronics products offered at unheard of prices. Are they any good? We purchased my cheap-o computer on November 22 last year — not exactly Black Friday, but I haven't had a single problem with it.

For now, I'm opting for the cheap route to stick with my budget. Luckily, I won't need to do any Black Friday computer shopping this year. But if I did, at least I have a method that works for me.

What's your approach when it comes to buying a computer? Have you ever been burned buying cheap computer equipment? If you use the set-price method, what amount are you willing to spend? What features make an expensive computer worth the money?

More about...Budgeting

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LennStar
LennStar
4 years ago

I go for features route, because that is the only viable 😉
You think about your needs and get the gear you need.

In your case, for surfing and wrinting, feature mode woudl have given you the same, because it would have said “small box, preferably passive, with i3 or a good atom”

Beth
Beth
4 years ago

My dad, a retired IT guy, used to always say to buy the biggest hard drive and the most RAM you can afford. In his experience, most people don’t use most of the features they think they needed but they sure notice when their computer’s performance starts to slow down. He was an advocate of spending a bit more at the outset and keeping your computer longer rather than buying cheaper machines and upgrading more often, which makes sense given his professional background. I’ve noticed that companies where I live buy machines with a 4-5 year replacement cycle in mind.… Read more »

lmoot
lmoot
4 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I agree with your dad. I’ve had 3 computers, each for over 5 years. Just bought my 3rd one a few months ago. Going forward I would definitely start looking for more/better memory. Even though memory can be updated later, it’s usually the deciding factor for me when it’s time to replace an old computer. As for a smartphone I’ll probably be looking at features and battery time. I’ve never owned one before but my needs are changing and I’ve reached the pass where a smartphone will make thing easier for me. I want a good GPS and camera, and… Read more »

Laura
Laura
4 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

If you’re in the market for a smartphone (or tablet or laptop or desktop), I’d suggest searching on http://www.pcmag.com for reviews. I did this when I bought a laptop last year; I did what Beth’s dad suggested and went for a large hard drive and lots of RAM, figuring what’s super-powerful now will be run-of-the-mill in a few years and allowing me to hold onto it for while. If you want more reviews/perspective, pick something you’re interested in and then do another Google search on just that item to see what other reviews come up. YMMV but usually comments in… Read more »

Beth
Beth
4 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

I was late to the smart phone game until I inherited an old blackberry at my job (shudder!) When it came time to upgrade, I had no idea what to replace it with. (I had some options, within reason) What I ended up doing was talking to coworkers and friends. People who love or hate their phones are only to happy to tell you why. Sometimes talking to people who have things in common with you is more helpful than random people on websites. Having a few coworkers tell me “this phone is better for doing this part of our… Read more »

Brenda
Brenda
4 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I’m not sure I’d follow your dad’s advice these days, since memory (RAM, hard drives, and expansion drives) is a lot cheaper now than it used to be. I bought the best CPU and potential for expansion that I could afford, then upgraded the RAM when I was ready. And features these days are so app-driven anymore that I really don’t care what the computer can do out of the box.

Beth
Beth
4 years ago
Reply to  Brenda

Storage usually isn’t the issue — it’s how much of your system’s resources it takes to run your operating system, software, etc. After about 50% capacity it starts to slow your system.

But things are changing so fast these days and with apps and the cloud, resources seem to go a lot farther! I’m still happily running a 5 year old 13″ macbook and am no where near using up half my hard disk. If I was heavy into video editing or other resource-heavy work, my needs would vary of course.

Nate @ Hacking Your Budget
Nate @ Hacking Your Budget
4 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Beth I think that’s a great point which holds true for a lot of things. I personally have a laptop I’ve used for the last 5 years that I got for $749. I’ve also been on the other side of things and purchased a laptop for $349 that only lasted 2 years before it got too slow for my day-to-day use. It all comes down to doing research beforehand in order to understand what options are out there and what will complete your regular tasks. Then you can assess how much that may cost and adjust what you’re looking for… Read more »

Carla
Carla
4 years ago
Reply to  Beth

I agree with your dad, Beth. I’m in the market for a new computer. My current one is 7 years old and except for the horrible Vista it came with (I upgraded to Windows 7), its been great. My ex-boss loaned me his newer computer to use instead of my personal one and it was a piece of junk. It was $400 give or take and it was not even worth that much. The keyboard sunk in as I type (and I do a lot of writing) and though it was new, it cam already infected with viruses and malware.… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
4 years ago

If you are or have a tech savvy person willing to do so, building your own PC from new parts purchased can be inexpensive. My one child built both himself and us a nice tower with lots of RAM, hard Drive, etc. all of which if in a “package” deal would have ended up costing double what we paid. Just keep in mind the cost of the software for the operating system as well when comparing, that was the largest single expense.

Kristi @ Femme Frugality
Kristi @ Femme Frugality
4 years ago

I most recently went with the cheap route. I needed a lap top for working away from the home office, so I just needed something with Word and Internet access. I didn’t want to pay extra for features that would just distract me from the jobs I actually needed the computer for.

Jerome
Jerome
4 years ago

I used to build myself, building a pc is relatively easy, but thanks to Microsoft usually not much cheaper than buying a ready-made. The cost of a legal copy of Windows is very high for a private buyer and very low for a high volume buyer. And the temptation is very high to install components with better specs than you really need. I now buy based on my intended use: for a computer with which I earn money I will spend a lot, with the focus on reliability, ergonomics and relevant performance. For playing around with programming and consuming content.… Read more »

Amanda
Amanda
4 years ago
Reply to  Jerome

I agree with you, she totally missed the option of building your own. While it might not be the cheapest initially, upgrading it is easy and you don’t have to buy a whole new one. Our computer is almost 10 years old and we just replace the parts as needed, new/more ram, a new hard drive. If you store a lot of data (videos/photos), I recommend getting a Drobo. Of course this only works with a desktop.

Patrick
Patrick
4 years ago

I went the cheap route my Junior year of college. I had just received my Pell Grant so I was “splurging” on things I needed: computer, washer/dryer, ect. I found the cheapest model that was out of stock and got an extra 30% off for buying the floor model. It didn’t very long after I graduated, but I did carry it around with me every day at school, so that probably contributed to it’s demise.

Dee
Dee
4 years ago

Refurbished all the way!!!! I live near two major universities, not to mention tons of private companies. You can regularly hit surplus sales and pick up desktop components for $5-20 each. There are enterprising, tech-savvy folks who buy out lots like these, clean them up & make sure they are running well, install a basic operating system on them, and then sell them to people like me at bargain prices. I bought the desktop computer that now sits in my living room 6 years ago this way. When I priced out what I wanted it was about $2500. I paid… Read more »

Jay
Jay
4 years ago
Reply to  Dee

I totally agree with you Dee… A few months ago one of the systems in my house when out so I start looking, I swear it seemed like I had to spend at minimum a grand just to get a half decent pc. However, I found a guy that rebuilds them and for $300, I got a system that puts mine to shame. Refurbished all the way from here on out =)…

Priswell
Priswell
4 years ago

I’m a linux user, so I could buy a computer second hand, wipe it and put linux on it, but when I actually plan to plunk money down on a “real” computer, I buy as much computer as I possibly can afford at the time (chip, RAM, Hard Drive). That way, assuming the hardware holds up, the computer will last a long time before I need to plunk down real money again. If the hardware breaks, I can replace parts as needed. I think in the long term, I do very well cost wise.

Mike
Mike
4 years ago

For future reference, when your computer starts “heating up and turning off without warning” buy a can of compressed air and blast it into the fan vents. You will see years of built up dust fly out, and the cooling capacity will be restored. No more over-heating issues!

If that doesn’t work, then you can take a more drastic measure of taking the whole machine apart to give it a top of the line cleaning, but only do that if you know how to take apart a computer.

Ramona
Ramona
4 years ago

I am a web designer, so my computer has to be pretty ‘strong’. I do choose to work on laptops (helps with mobility, since we also like to travel). Here’s my strategy: 1. 17 inches display. I have a 17.3 now. Needed for my graphics software. I don’t look for anything under this. 2. specs – should be well ‘clothed’. I usually go with the latest processor type and a good chunk of RAM. I don’t care for looks (so no Vaio or Apple for me). I can a afford a steeper price (usually around 1000 bucks), but won’t pay… Read more »

Karthigan Srinivasan
Karthigan Srinivasan
4 years ago

I go the cheap route. The set-price route could also be considered the delayed gratification route. Computer prices always come down as time passes from the initial product launch. Thus you can get most of the features you want in the set-price route if you can wait out the initial mad rush. I have been in the server industry for 15 years. The newest products are always rushed into the market and often come out with firmware and software issues. These get addressed during the first six months when the customers who pay the high dollars complain. Historically, price of… Read more »

Karthigan Srinivasan
Karthigan Srinivasan
4 years ago

I bought my notebook for $170 and I love it. I went the cheap route. Check my blog post to see what influenced my decision to buy this notebook – http://stretchadime.com/low-cost-notebook-for-home-use/

Jeanbe
Jeanbe
4 years ago

I buy refurbished and get a decent machine for way cheaper. I can fix my own machine so it’s no big deal for me. I also purchase computers for work (PCs, someone else does the Macs) and I get the newest processor and max out RAM. I can go external hard drives should I need more storage. People tend to overpay for computers. When I’m asked by a co-worker to help them buy a computer I’ll ask them what they want to use it for. Mostly, it turns out, word processing and checking emails. I steer more to OpenOffice (FREE)… Read more »

cj
cj
4 years ago

I take ‘needs route’. I buy computers according to needs. So for kids playing it will be gaming console or laptop with good graphics (costly!). For programming I need powerful processor and quick hdd. For internet+word+xls it can be mid-level, cheaper machine which is ready to work in seconds.

I do not buy features I do not need. This way I am happy with price, big or small.

Hulu
Hulu
4 years ago

We recently bought DW a Lenovo U31 8 gb RAM with a hybrid SSD hard drive for $600. MS Office through my work was heavily discounted. She loves it but anything was better than her cheap Asus. Refurb may have been better because the battery life is already diminishing. I may go refurb next March if (1) the company I work for doesn’t buy us laptops first and (2) we really need another laptop in addition to our iPad minis.

Marven
Marven
4 years ago

Usually, I go the set priced route and choose the most cost-efficient features. In my laptops, I’ll buy processor power and graphics, but cheaper memory and just upgrade that myself at a later date. Ditto with hard drives, though now I go for smaller internal drives because externals are way cheaper than the extra cost to have it internal. I built my desktop, so I went for the most performance that I could afford at that time. It has been a couple years, though, and I could probably upgrade some things now to specs that were top-of-the-line when I built… Read more »

Justin
Justin
4 years ago

I go with the “needs” route, however working in the industry I have greater needs than most and my laptops, can quite literally cost SEVERAL TIMES more than I paid for my work vehicle. Having said that, I see way to many people “cheap out” on the laptops and other devices especially in the area of warranty (and specifically ones where the batteries are under warranty). Looking at it from a professional point of view, and working in the vertical I do people only see the $ signs. Cost amortization of the laptops we get in for our clients, although… Read more »

Rahul
Rahul
4 years ago

Just bought a new HP laptop several weeks ago. We have a Macbook Air and have been on the Apple bandwagon many, many years. My wife wanted another computer for work that she could leave there. We went to Office Depot to try some cheap Windows laptops. We then went on Amazon and found the same model for cheaper. Spent about $250 for a really good computer. I go the price route, unless buying a Mac. It is unreal the drop in computer prices these days. I remember when my dad brought home a Gateway desktop and that was like… Read more »

Bill in NC
Bill in NC
4 years ago

I buy Apple products as cheaply as I can & upgrade their memory & storage.

My refurbished 13″ MacBook Pro was $800 + tax from Apple 3 years ago.

Came with 4GB RAM, upgraded to 8GB ($50) a year later.

Just switched from its original hard drive to a much faster solid-state drive (SSD) for $200.

Apple now offers a flat-rate (around $300) “depot repair” for all its portables.

So if anything breaks (logic board, screen, video, etc.) I’ll reinstall the original parts, send it off, get back a working unit, & re-install my upgrades.

Jennifer
Jennifer
4 years ago

When I was in college in the early 2000’s I couldn’t afford a computer. I used the computer lab at school to work and to print papers. I got a free refurbished computer from a college friends in return for driving him to and from our hometown. I kept that until the keyboard broke and the connector format was so old I literally could not find a replacement or workaround. So basically I didn’t spend any money for a computer until I was about 25. First approach to computers: I bought a Mac – basic version – and kept it… Read more »

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